North Sacramento digs in to save multicultural garden.
WRITTEN BY PAUL TOWERS
ILLUSTRATION BY LUCY ENGELMAN
Tucked away in the Niños Parkway in Sacramento’s River Garden Estates neighborhood, gardeners toil away on plots of land in an impressive, sprawling hive of gardening activity.
But that could change. Over the summer, the renegade gardeners at the International Garden of Many Colors received a notice from the City of Sacramento that their garden of 20-some years might be demolished.
Shannon Brown, who manages the property for the City of Sacramento, wrote in an email, “After much consideration, the city has decided that we will not be allowing the continued encroachment onto the Niños Parkway that is being used as a community garden space.”
It’s not the first time that the future of the garden has seemed bleak, as city leaders considered removing it several times over the past four years to make way for a more modern garden, and amid concerns over parkway access, security, and ability of appropriate parties to access power lines. In Sacramento, every other community garden is supported in some way by the city’s community garden program and on public or special district property ... except for this one.
But residents — many first-generation immigrants from Ukraine, Russia, and Mexico — have made it clear that they plan to keep this place.
Many of the self-organized guerilla gardeners live in the nearby affordable housing complex supported by the nonprofit organization Mutual Housing. Marena Weisman, a community organizer with the group, is the first to admit that challenges exist, from water storage to loose, ungrounded fencing, but she insists that gardeners are ready to fix the problems if given the time.
Ellen is a grandmother and Eastern-Bloc-born leader who has asked not to have her last name revealed given the bad experiences she’s had in the past with reporters and authority figures.
According to other gardeners, it’s not unusual to find Ellen out at 5 a.m. in the garden, where she tends to black currants, medicinal herbs, melons, and peaches.
She describes gardening as a “place of refuge in a fast-paced world, a place to forget about things and meditate.”
Given the mix of cultures involved, she also describes it as a special place that can’t be easily transferred to “share ideas, plans, and seeds.”
Ellen takes her 3-year-old granddaughter to the International Garden of Many Colors because she believes it’s critical that “children appreciate the work that people do to put food on the table.”
Last year, city workers built an impressive $250,000-plus garden nearby that’s up to code. The new garden is everything the old garden is not; it lacks the same sense of wildness, community ownership, and history. Until the most recent notice, city officials had encouraged gardeners to relocate; now it’s mandatory. And, in an effort to be sensitive to protecting the garden, the Sacramento Metropolitan Utility District, which leases access to operate power lines on the site, purchased a parcel of land that allowed gardeners to build a necessary utility access road and skirt most of the garden plots. But that may be moot.
Ellen, who immigrated to this country now many years ago, firmly planted her roots at the International Garden of Many Colors. She’s made it clear that it won’t be easily demolished.
“We are ready to fight for our garden,” she says.
Paul Towers is a frequent contributor to GroundTruth, a leader of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, serves as the organizing director and policy advocate at Pesticide Action Network, and enjoys cooking food from his garden with his children at his home in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.
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